Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Path Dependent Charity

Brief thoughts sparked by recent events in academia and this succinctly insightful tweet from Peli Grietzer.

One thing that I notice is that in the conversation around the Sokal Squared hoax a lot of people treated tendencies or viewpoints as absurd that seemed to me quite reasonable. I have encountered the claim that we ought be relativists about standards of scientific inference or truth itself, that the purported laws of classical logic are up for revision and that, if this is done, it might have far reaching consequences for our fundamental beliefs. That scientific inquiry is value laden and this affects its role in public life, and that pluralism in science is therefore important. Read people embracing a kind of multi-culturalist decolonial approach, with radical views on truth, discoursing on inter-cultural relations. I don't agree with all of the linked, but all of them strike me as making points worthy of serious consideration and, if they are wrong, worthy of actual rebuttal. And - and here is what the post is really about - the ideas struck me as so obviously defensible on grounds that are about as cogent as is typical in decent philosophy (somewhat faint praise noted!) that it was hard for me to see what the fuss is about. Sure, maybe this or that essay didn't do a great job of things, but so what? Not every explication of an idea is the best version thereof.

In reflecting on this, I really just mean to put out a rather obvious thought (which is perhaps only new to me) and which, I think, might explain some failures to communicate. As we try and survive The Discourse we encounter all sorts of wild opinions. Some of them seem to us so absurd as to not seriously be worth pursuing. We all have limited time and attention, some things really do need to be set aside. Others seem like they are perhaps imperfectly stated but contain some idea worth considering. As a casual perusal of academic twitter will soon tell you, people often disagree on which of these two categories an idea falls into. If you think an idea, argument, or theory, falls into the So Absurd As To Be Dismissable category then if I persist in wanting to talk it out I can seem obtuse or foolish or like I must be trying to distract. Whereas if you think an idea has only been badly expressed but has some real merit then if I dismiss it then I can seem arrogant or dogmatic or small minded or like I should prefer to avoid difficult challenges.

What has recently struck me is how much this is a dispute about potential, or something in any case a little bit counter-factual rather than quite there immediately in the idea under discussion. When one has a dispute of this sort one is really arguing about what could be done with an idea, should we invest some effort - and on that basis trying to decide whether to invest the effort. What is the epistemology of such claims? How does one decide the potential of an as yet un-had dialogue?

I suspect that, right or wrong, in any case this is what people usually do: they try and think about whether they have seen anything plausibly defended that is sufficiently similar in its premises and conclusion to the matter under discussion. If they have, then they conclude the present instance just needs some work and may contain insight. If they have not, then they conclude that this is just crankery and not worth the effort. If I am right this is a sort of small-c-conservative bias in our reasoning, though it might be a pretty good heuristic when one is pressed for time.

I also think this is what leads to many failures of communication about the kind of ideas discussed in the Sokal Squared hoax. While I agree that there is a lot of bad work out there and I don't think this is the only thing at stake, I think that when I apply this heuristic to even the mediocre or bad work (that is meant to be Very Bad social constructivism) it often comes out looking on the right side of the line. This is just a poor exposition of a basically interesting thought - certainly not intrinsically anti-intellectual or anti-science or incapable of clear expression or anything like that. But of course I have had a very particular educational path through the sciencey and formaly bits of philosophy, which others may not have. So I think without such exemplars to come to mind, the bad or mediocre work looks like the best it gets, and the ideas seem damnable.

(In fact actual discourse is in a worse state than this, since I think the conditions of the culture war and the interest of certain right wing provocateurs prevents people being able to see these similarities. But its my blog and I shall construct the discourse I want to see in the world!)

Our experience tells us which views are really on the table.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Formal Africana Philosophy is a Cosmopolitanism.

Image result for Saint Augustine
Saint Augustine - "Lord, grant me a sound
and complete axiomatic  system, but not yet."
In the fifth book of his Confessions Saint Augustine says that realising that secular natural philosophers could give well confirmed mathematical explanations of astronomical events helped convince him that the Manichaes were wrong. I was struck by this early record of the importance of mathematical reasoning to an African philosopher, and it got me thinking. After all, I like to joke that I am simultaneously the world's best and worst formal Africana philosopher (for the record and in fact, this is only half true: Wiredu is clearly the world's best formal Africana philosopher). What does that actually mean? Is there anything to the notion of formal Africana philosophy?

In particular, is there anything more informative than: a formal philosopher who is also an Africana philosopher? Kwame Appiah, for instance, has worked on the epistemic underpinnings of Ghanaian folk belief and, separately, on the semantics of conditionals - and is in the About sense mentioned here thereby a formal philosopher, and hence a kind of formal Africana philosopher. But is there more to say than this? Well, I think there might be. But I want to note that the more demanding notion that I shall be discussing is only, so to speak, a sufficient condition for being a formal Africana philosopher. So I am not trying to define the notion, since I'd personally be happy to count somebody a formal Africana philosopher on that very thin basis alone, and am open to there being other possibilities.

To get a sense of what I mean, one way to be an Africana philosopher is to explore distinctive concepts or worldviews that were developed by people of recent African descent in order to illuminate their own experience or (de re) those of people of recent African descent.

By `explore' I mean to indicate any project of analysis, synthesis, or explication, that takes African concepts or worldviews as its source material. By `concepts or worldviews' I mean to indicate very broadly the sorts of things philosophers discuss, rather than any technical or more refined idea of what they might be. So discussions about knowledge, justice, beauty, truth are all examples of discussions about concepts for this purpose. And discussions about utilitarianism, the A-theory of time, and theism are all discussions about worldviews for this purpose. By `developed to illuminate their own experience...' I mean that said concepts or worldviews must be things that at least some persons of recent African descent endorse or think can be used as part of true and informative descriptions of some part of the world they take to be significant.

The `distinctive' qualifier is a fudge, to avoid a certain kind of triviality. Without it, maybe literally just any exploration of any concept or worldview would count in, given the actual diversity of belief on the continent and in the diaspora. Yet we recognise that if some concept were especially developed by someone who is themselves an Africana philosopher, or if some worldview is much more likely to be held by people on the African concept or the African diaspora, it is of the right sort. As I shall return to, the fact that there is something a bit arbitrary about the geographic qualifier strikes me as to the point. The reasons one might be interested in Africana philosophy qua Africana philosophy strike me as similar to the reasons one might be interested in ancient Greek philosophy or 19th C. European philosophy or etc - sociological or historical, or for reasons of felt kinship, or some quirk of how one came into the field, but in any case not because there is some shared idea(s) unifying the work of this sort.

Even setting aside how unsatisfactory the fudge is, this sufficient condition has some odd consequences. While I said "recent descent" to avoid triviality, as stated it still counts in (i) work by or about North African philosophers, and (ii) the recent descendants of European colonisers. Personally I take (i) to be a good consequence, (ii) to be a somewhat unwelcome consequence but something that I can live with.

And one way to be a formal philosopher is to use the tools of mathematics to draw out structural elements of the kinds of concepts or worldviews philosophers are interested in.

By this I mean: despite the claims of certain particularists, I take it that no concept (or worldview) is entirely sui generis or cut off from implications beyond those immediately intended in any given usage. For instance, if I say Accra is hotter than Dublin then I am committed to the claim that if Dublin is hotter than London then Accra is hotter than London. This in virtue of quite general facts about the hotter than relationship. Those quite general facts can be spelled out and arranged into a system. By such means we can learn non-obvious consequences of our beliefs, or bring to light underlying similarities between apparently disparate concepts, or expose tempting but fallacious inferences that use the concept or appeal to the worldview.

Putting this together therefore, one way of being a formal Africana philosopher is to use the tools of mathematics to draw out structural elements of those distinctive concepts or worldviews developed by people of recent African descent in order to illuminate their own experience or (de re) those of people of recent African descent.

Formal Africana philosophy thus seems to me one concrete way of manifesting a certain kind of cosmopolitan sensibility. Like Appiah, I am a fan of cosmpolitanism. I really do think that all under Heaven are owed equal moral regard, and all have something to contribute to the commonweal, and it is both possible and desirable to construct a shared culture based around these claims. Formal philosophy, on this understanding, is something that draws out aspects of ideas or worldviews that are very general, that exhibit patterns or structures that are widely shared, and which puts these generalities to use in developing our thought.

The long traditions of Africana thought have developed concepts that exhibit mathematically tractable patterns, and adapted them to the particular purposes and worldviews of Africa and the diaspora. Formal Africana philosophy displays what is general in them, and in so doing facilitates making global comparisons, and shoring up argumentation by analogy or mathematical proof. Formal Africana philosophy conspicuously refutes the old Eurocentric lie that only European thought has developed ideas which are appropriately universal or universalisable.

Formal Africana philosophy takes a category that is rather particularistic and shows how it too partakes in the most general shared culture humanity has yet produced. There is a famous passage in The Souls of Black Folk wherein Du Bois describes how it feels for him to participate in high culture. It goes:
 I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
I think formal Africana philosophy at its best (i.e. in Wiredu) captures something of exactly this sentiment. And while I lack Du Bois' literary flair I dare say formal Africana philosophy does so in a somewhat purer fashion. Since, rather than doing so by amalgamating Africana thought to the achievements of elite European men, formal Africana philosophy lifts us above the veil through the universal language of mathematics, common property of all.

Formal Africana philosophy is thus one little way of ensuring that the ideas of thinkers from the African diaspora are given due regard, and may take their place and contribute their effort in the universal culture under construction. This is not the only, nor anywhere near the most important, contribution of Africana philosophy, or formal philosophy, to either universal culture or local projects. But it is a contribution, and one I am proud to make.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Methodological Conservativism

I haven't posted in a while, and just for the sakes of keeping the blog active I am going to post some uncompleted notes for a quite a long post I was writing some time ago and now do not think I will have time to finish. So here is what I had on the idea of methodological radicalism. It may at least be useful as a collection of links to various papers relating to the proper infusion of ethical or political values into our argumentation or modes of epistemic evaluation.

Here are two senses of "method" one might use - first, a method is a procedure one uses for generating claims to endorse. So in this sense, for instance, my method for working out what the temperature is in the morning is to check the weather app on my phone. Second, a method might be a procedure one uses to justify your claims. So, in this sense, my method for justifying my beliefs about the temperature might be to tell you the above procedure and perhaps add some reasons to believe that the weather app is generally reliable about such things. These things are not wholly separable - the example chosen to illustrate that sometimes part of my method for justifying claims goes via pointing to features of the method I had for discovering it. But they also can come apart: I might come to believe a theorem after having a dream in which I was given the strong impression it was true, and only justify it through a proof at some later date.

A recent paper in Radical Philosophy has argued that feminists ought be methodological radicals, endorsing the following claim:
These feminists suggest that, if we are to combat sexist and racist social formations, we therefore need to complement our political radicalism with a methodological radicalism that involves making use of the practical power of ethically non-neutral resources, conceived as in themselves cognitively authoritative.
That is to say, the essay argues that the aforementioned feminists are correct to so think, takes it for granted (it is addressed to self-identified feminists) that we should combat sexist and racist social formations, and so argues that we should "mak[e] use of the practical power of ethically non-neutral resources, conceived as in themselves cognitively authoritative." The article pitches itself against analytical feminism, so I thought I would make note of a number of ways in which analytical philosophers (sometimes explicitly feminists, but I am assuming that analytical feminists will be allowed to draw upon the work of other analytical philosophers and still count as analytical feminists) have been willing to countenance ethically non-neutral resources, conceived as in themselves cognitively authoritative.

  • The classic case is the inductive risk argument. We never settle what is true with certainty. How much evidence short of certainty, therefore, must we require in favour of a proposition before we can say that it has been sufficiently well confirmed to (at least provisionally) accept? Round my neck of the woods it is very widely believed that any answer to this question will necessitate some procedure which is not ethically neutral, since it will essentially involve deciding whether it is worse to believe a falsehood or worse to fail to believe a truth.  This is an interesting case in that it seems to touch upon both senses of method. One does in fact need to decide for oneself when one has done enough inquiry to be sufficiently convinced of whatever conclusion you have reached. Further, one must have some notion of "good enough evidence to be warranted in my conclusion" to make the case that one is justified. 

  • There is also the sense in which conceptual schemes may be voluntarily adopted by an individual or community, and in so doing reflect our/their socio-political values. Inquiry necessarily involves categorising things and drawing attention to some similarities over others. In the first sense, one's method of categorisation will therefore inevitably reflect a sense of what it is important to draw attention to, which things ought be considered alike, and will in many cases by so categorising prompt responses of a certain sort. For some illuminating discussions of this sort of thing in science see here and here.  This very blog has featured discussion of some philosophers who would say that conscious choice of conceptual schemes on ethically non-neutral grounds is required of us. I have a published historical study of a certain application of this perspective, and a paper where we engage in conscious conceptual engineering for political reasons. I have seen some interpretive debate on this point, but I at least  think of something like this as lying behind Haslanger's notion of ameliorative analysis. I should note that whereas I think the inductive risk argument is very widely accepted, this sort of position is more controversial and those of a more realist bent (perhaps this, for instance) may think that there is an ethically neutral but properly favoured conceptual scheme. As is discussed in the Radical Philosophy paper, Fricker's idea of hermeneutic injustice is probably an instance of this sort.

  • Related to one or both of the above, one might think that choice of deductive inference procedures is not ethically neutral. Arguably a big part of one's method (in the second sense) is what one thinks may be justifiably inferred from a given body of claims. From a certain perspective (well explained here) that may be thought of as broadly Carnapian, what is deducible from what is as much a matter of social decision (and as much open to ethico-politico evaluation) as one's inductive inference rules or one's general conceptual scheme. Some works exploring that idea can be found in this collection here. I should say in this case that while I think the general point is very well taken and I agree with it (though again it is controversial, for a good explanation of logical realism and an exploration of its consequences see here) I am yet to be persuaded of any application of it. It does not yet seem to me that we have found an area of inquiry or life where it has actually been all that politically significant or useful to adopt any deductive logic or another on recognisably partisan ethical or political grounds. Still, the idea is in there air and has received some sympathetic discussion.

  • Lots of people nowadays are Bayesians, some subjective Bayesians. Even folk who are not ideologically all that committed to Bayesianism will make use of Bayesian discovery procedures or statistical methods. Or even some besides all this will find themselves having to make probability estimations that have, shall we say, a somewhat indirect relationship to any evidence they have. This means that prior probabilities in some form or another will play some role in their inquiry. This could be in either the first or second sense of method. Plenty of argumentation out there that this must or does typically involve some non-neutral resources being given a role as cognitively authoritative! See for instance here or here for discussion of these sort of ideas. That such ethically laden priors sometimes do in fact feature in inquiry in the first sense of method is not all that controversial, but whether they ought, and relatedly whether they may permissibly feature in the second sense of method, is very controversial.

  • Of course there is a rather obvious sense in which non-neutral things should be treated as cognitively authoritative, which is the sense they would be authoritative for one if you thought they were truths which other truths must therefore be consistent with, perhaps especially truths discoverable in the course of the very inquiry whose method is under discussion. This can relate to the second bullet point, in that one might think that inquiry must inevitably use or (if successful) come to discover truths that can only be stated using ethically laden "thick" terms. This is to say that it would be missing something important and noteworthy if you gave an ethically neutral description of some persons, rather than describing them as courageous or oppressed or wicked or the like. A pet scholarly hobby horse of mine is that Du Bois almost certainly thought something of this form, and one can see discussion of views along these lines here and here

  • A person's social standing and political beliefs (or preferences or affective relationships to their situation quite generally) might make them more or less reliable as a witness or provider or testimony. This is related to the point I discussed at length here so I shan't say more on it here. Taking this on board may affect who one wants to be involved in the process of inquiry, as discussed here. Related to that last, it is worth noting that the community of inquiry (since it is a social community) may have its own distinctive set of social values and internal injustices and these may make a difference to how trustworthy or reliable they are - for some related discussion to this see here, here, and here.

Let us assume that our hypothetical analytical feminist philosopher accepts all of the above uses of ethically non-neutral resources as cognitively authoritative. That is to say, they think that the concepts they use are subject to proper ethico-politico debate, that when they have enough evidence depends on what is ethically at stake, that what they may infer from what has already been granted depends on ethico-political decisions, that their prior probabilities or starting place in inquiry may and should reflect some ethico-political stances, that some of the truths they may discover or already accept and therefore take as background knowledge are moral or normatively laden truths, and that the values and participants of their inquiring community are both ethically and epistemically significant. How does such an analytical feminist compare to the ideal of the Radical Philosophy paper?

From what I gather they'd go further than the paper grants the analytic feminist can, but still not quite far enough. The paper spends some time arguing in abstract that one's method in philosophy should be responsive to ethically non-neutral reasons treated as cognitively authoritative. From where I stand this was less controversial in the relevant community than this allocation of space would suggest, but they cite some people to the contrary from within analytic philosophy and it is in any case good to rehearse argumentation just for the sakes of it being explicit. But when it comes to what it would actually look like to take on board ethically non-neutral reasons and treat them as cognitively authoritative the following ideas were put forward.

if we are to do justice to the real or objective texture of women’s lives, we need to explore and, where appropriate, take on board ethically-loaded perspectives

Context, I think, suggested the following readings for this. We should be unafraid of using ethically loaded thick terms, recognising their full emotive power as important for conveying what is going on here. (There is another potential reading, discussed below.) I think our hypothetical analytical feminist philosopher would already have agreed to both of these points, however. That there are moral truths to be discovered and incorporate into our background knowledge, and that thick terms may be required to adequately convey what is going on, are ideas that featured in my hasty literature survey.

the methodologically radical conviction that investigating charged perspectives opened up by forms of bias to which women are subjected is essential to efforts to get objective aspects of women’s lives clearly into focus. 

This seems to be the familiar idea that we should be aware that in deciding who to take more seriously than others (whose perspective to adopt as a sound basis for inquiry) we should think that a person's identity and political stance matter.  This also featured in the above literature survey.

if we are to pursue [liberating and rationally sound social thought] in a rationally responsible manner, we need to manifest a sensitivity to the indefinitely complex ways in which, at concrete historical times and places, different and interweaving forms of bias expose members of particular social groups to harm. 
Context suggests this was an elaboration of the first and second points, with an emphasis on the importance of contextual factors in guiding one's decisions about what the salient moral truths are or who is epistemically advantaged.

notice that, insofar as [Fricker] depicts us as relying in most of our discursive dealings on ‘stereotypes’, understood as empirical generalisations about behaviour whose evaluation is an ethically neutral affair – and insofar as the kind of testimonial virtue she urges is a matter of ‘neutralising [stereotypical] prejudice in one’s credibility judgments’ – she operates in the logical realm determined by a neutral conception of reason.
One of the most interesting sections of the paper is an extended critical discussion of Fricker's work, with which I was in considerable sympathy! But note that Fricker is, on this reading (not knowing enough, I will not contest it as a piece of Fricker-exegesis), not making full use of the resources of analytical feminism. It is very clearly not true that if one says that something comes down to evaluating empirical generalisations one has therefore committed to ethical neutrality - the widely accepted inductive risk argument is already enough to block that inference, but so would nearly any of the other bullet points. Second, the point about credibility judgements may relate either to the point about interlocutor selection (or community of inquiry construction) or the role of priors or prior-esque probability judgements in one's inquiry. In either case, again, analytical feminism has already developed ways of understanding the political implications of these.

[philosophers like Fricker who assign an important role to argumentation] are frequently helping themselves to a ‘neutral’ understanding of an argument as a proposition or set of propositions which licenses a further concluding proposition in a manner that does not depend on any tendency of the initial propositions to shape our routes of feeling. 
This was a point at which I do think there is some genuine disagreement. When I first read this piece I did not notice the last clause of this claim. And so it seemed to me to be similar to the above - there is clearly in analytical feminism room for the idea that what makes for a good argument, inductive or deductive, depends in some way upon one's political values. However, I am not aware of any defence of the idea in analytical feminism that part of what makes for a good argument qua argument is how it directs the feelings of those who make or consider the argument. Now, the quoted passage (and wider context) could be the claim that the initial premises should involve ethically laden terms which will have peculiar emotive content. In which case the analytical feminist could insist that after all they want sound argumentation, and some of the true premises one ought work from involve moral truths or must be stated using thick ethical terms.  But as we shall see, I do not think this a likely reading of the paper.

My notes ended here, with the word "Sixth", a comma, and no indication of what I thought followed. Or any means of following up on the various "Later I shall"s above. Sorry folks! I'll only note that I think that this last could be used in a more or less radical way. If the claim is that a good method ought to be one which (in addition to being methodologically good in various other ways) directs us to conclusions that appropriately engage our emotions and thus cause us to be more passionately committed to a claim (method in the first sense of the opening paragraph) then while I am not aware of this being much discussed it seems well in keeping with much of what is out there. One of these days I shall write more properly on Du Bois on art and I shall discuss similar themes then! If, on the other hand, the claim is that part of the justificatory power of an argument consists in it appropriately so engaging our feelings - and I think past me was persuaded this was the proper reading of the paper - then that it is a more significant divergence from typical argumentative canons.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Doctor Bright

So I have a Phd now. 

It has been a long road, getting from there to here. Along the way I made close friends, learned things I didn't know I didn't know, and fell in love with my fiancĂ©e. To do all this I moved across the world, to live by myself as a stranger in a strange city, to pursue something that none of my ancestors had ever done. For I am, I say with some confidence, the first person in the entire history of my family to ever have a doctorate. (Though I won't be the last!) I am the first black person to get a PhD from my department, and will be the first such person to be employed at the department I am joining. Somewhat relatedly, I am sure I am the first person to include a substantial amount of W.E.B. Du Bois scholarship in a PhD from my department. Reflecting on these things fills me with some pride, I feel that this achievement is a very small part of a greater story about the gradual advance of families and peoples, and I am happy to be a part of that story.

Of course, all is not perfect. As I said before at another milestone, I wish more than anything that I could experience this moment with my mother, who I think would most of all have appreciated this. I can only hope that by grace of God we shall one day be reunited and share this joy. A bit more prosaically, there are corrections to be done before I am officially certified. I must admit that the dissertation is not my best work. I am somewhat proud that it followed a structure I had previously advocated for here,  but the individual chapters are highly imperfect, and, worse, it is disjointed and lacks a pleasing narrative flow. I struggle with the severe mismatch between my aesthetic ideals and my actual achievements, and it is frustrating that my dissertation should form such a stark example. I know that the next real challenge for me as a thinker is finding a way to more properly link up my various thoughts into some coherent and explicable structure. I had hoped that my dissertation would represent this moment for me, but in all humility I must admit I failed at that endeavour. (Don't you know, when I am not literally actually the avatar of Liberty leading the people of France to yet another glorious defeat, I can actually be rather humble.) I note its structural failures by way of encouragement to any current or potential graduate students currently reading this. The dissertation needn't be perfect; whatever it is, it is not a representation of your full worth or potential as a scholar.

Generalising a bit, I think that speaks to what kind of a moment this is. Writing up a thesis, being awarded the doctorate, they have something of the structure and feeling of an end, a moment of closure. They cap off an achievement, years of difficult study culminating in a mini-magnum-opus. But, like so many before me, now I am here this conception of things feels totally inadequate. There is so much more I need to learn, so much more I could contribute. When I began studying for the PhD I thought that my goal was to have the community recognise me as a peer expert who has advanced the project of inquiry. But actually getting the PhD feels more like the community acknowledging that I have the capacity to learn and improve, rather than them acknowledging that I have already achieved something which merits reward.

That means a lot to me - I spent the first 15 years or so of my education being told I was clever but lazy. That latter half was not without justification, given how I then was. But I worked hard for this, PhDs are not the sort of thing one can generally get just for being clever. It's not just the community acknowledging that I have the capacity to learn and improve, but some concrete proof to myself that I can do as much.

I have grown a lot as a person in the time I took getting my PhD. Too many people have helped me in that journey for me to possibly name them here without risk of insulting folk by failure to include them. But if you think this cadre of helpers might include you then it does include you. Thank you, one and all. I will strive to use what strength and the skills you have given me to make the world more kind and wise.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Empiricism is a Standpoint Epistemology

Every well informed empiricist should be a standpoint epistemologist. Indeed, I think this should be entirely uncontroversial, so much so that after making my case for this claim most of the blog post is really going to be about why it is that people argue about this. I'm making this post because I find of myself that I keep independently arguing this to various people, so I would like to just have my thoughts written down somewhere to refer to in future.

Let's begin by some definitions. For my purpose here an empiricist is somebody who thinks that - (i) people with more experience of a phenomenon will, all else equal, know more about it than those with less such experience, (ii) provided that they actually take the time to reason about it or pay attention to the evidence available to them. By "well informed empiricist" I mean somebody who believes (i) and (ii) and is aware of some of the (rather obvious) sociological facts I shall be drawing attention to in what follows. This is a somewhat non-standard definition of empiricist, I really just mean "somebody who thinks experiencing stuff and thinking about those experiences is a very valuable way of learning about said stuff". Feel free to substitute in that inelegant expression if you are unhappy with "empiricist" in any of this post.

As to standpoint epistemology, take this definition from the IEP article on feminist standpoint theory:
Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized. 
I think that's good enough for my purposes, and essentially what I will argue is that the kind of cases which have been most controversial in both philosophy and the broader culture (say, the claim that women are generally epistemically privileged when it comes to reasoning about sexual assault in the work place, or black people about racist social norms in America) are all cases where empiricists ought agree with the standpoint epistemologists. In particular, I will briefly argue that things that recognisable versions of claims (1), (2), and (3) would all be thought true by a well informed empiricist. (I won't do it because this post is already too long, but if you went through the more extensive set of questions for a standpoint epistemology outlined at the start of section 2 here you could construct a pretty similar blog post to this one. It's not just I have picked a quirky definition of Standpoint Epistemology!)

First a silly thought experiment. Suppose we had a caste system that sent 50% of people to factory floors every day and 50% to office buildings, and never the twain shall mix or visit the other's place of work. (What do they eat in this world, you ask? Fuck you, I reply.) Call the first the blue collars and the second the white collars. An empiricist informed of this arrangement should immediately conclude that the blue collars much much more likely to know about factory floors and what they are like when compared with white collars, and vice versa for office blocks. There's thus a clear sense in which knowledge would be socially situated - who knew what would depend heavily on caste. What is more, for at least some things (let us suppose that the blue collars have a genuinely worse standard of life) the marginalised  are clearly in a better position to know what's going on and ask pertinent questions, for just the same reason as above. And if you wanted to find out about life on the factory floors (say, how people responded to the orders telegraphed in from the office blocks, which they have every reason to pay attention to lest the food rations cease) and one was not a blue collar oneself then a pretty good strategy for finding out, at least for an empiricist, would be to (breaking the thought experiment a bit) ask the blue collars what's up and record their answers -  of course doing your best to get a representative sample and etc. Even if you had other ways of finding out what's up (perhaps you could put on some jeans, Dick van Dyke your accent, and clock in for a day) it'd probably still be a good idea to check with a representative sample of actual blue collars before drawing any firm conclusions. So that's (1), (2) and (3).

Of course, I think in this scenario the degree of anti-empiricism it would take to deny that is highly indefensible. But as I take it is clear, this is just an abstract and extreme example of what is got at in standpoint epistemology. In reality things are more probabilistic and varied. We have more divisions of labour, we communicate with each other more, we travel between lifeworlds more. But in essence our social division of labour does achieve something like this. There are clearly ways in which our global division of labour allots us tasks in something like this way, provides us with different incentives and information to learn from, and for questions of great social import the perspective of the socially marginalised will often be the perspective which an empiricist would bet has more relevant knowledge.

 For a more realistic instance, take the position of black domestic staff in the mid 20th century as compared to their employers - these (usually) women had to be familiar with the actual mores and expectations of their white employers, and also had to get by in the social world of the all black quarters in town. The white folk, on the other-hand, were much less likely to ever enter the ghetto let alone seriously get to know the place,  could afford (and, humanly enough, no doubt desired) to maintain a pleasing self-image which may not always match their own mores and behaviours, and the degree to which they get to know The Help interpersonally is dependent on their idiosyncratic interests and sensibilities. If you had to guess, if you had limited time and resources to interview people and find out about race relations in some town in 1947 Alabama, which group do you think should spend more time getting to know, should you want to include in the research team (as participants or involved in the survey design or running it - whatever the case may be)? Whatever your answer, I take it that an empiricist, somebody who thinks that knowledge tracks degree of experience and incentive to really think things through, is going to want to favour the marginalised group here. And for just the same reason that a standpoint epistemologist would - because conditions (1), (2), and (3) seem to be met by the empiricists' own standards.

These examples can be multiplied and I already feel bad for belabouring it - part of my point here is just how obvious all this is. It's really quite a banal point - it's just noting that in a society with divisions of labour and social roles that track demographic categories then what experiences and incentives to learn you have will track (indeed be causally downstream of) group membership, and sometimes the differential spheres of knowledge will be of interest to important questions of social research. But! I have consistently found that when I say I am a standpoint epistemologist because I am an empiricist this is treated as me just missing the point or saying something obviously confused or etc. So however you react to it when laid out here, let me just appeal to my own lived experience and say this is not generally agreed to be as obvious as I hope it now seems. So I'll end by noting some reasons I think people have for disagreeing. From most to least charitable!
  • Situatedness Is Not Reducible To Evidence: "standpoint theorists typically note that the mere fact of being member of marginalised group is not sufficient to make you especially knowledgeable about some element of their lives, there is some other achievement necessary - I have given the empiricist friendly gloss that you must have time and incentive to think through one's experiences to be considered epistemically advantaged, but maybe there is some other factor that should be taken into account which the empiricist could not so easily accommodate." To be honest this is just about the only objection that I think is a serious worry of all those I will survey. I don't have a decisive response to it. But I will note that many of the arguments I have seen given for standpoint epistemology in its Marxist, feminist, and critical race theorist variants, have seemed to me to be appealing to the kind of intuitions I surveyed above: that people who have more experience and incentive to think honestly about what that entails will, all else equal, know more about a topic matter than those without those advantages, and that given how society is arranged it is often the marginalised who have the pertinent experience and incentive.  Where I have seen elaborations of this point that seemed less empiricist friendly, I will also note that at times, they seemed to me to risk trivialising standpoint epistemology. Folk sometimes seem suspiciously close to saying that to have really achieved the epistemically advantaged standpoint you must acknowledge to be true just those propositions the theorist holds most dear to their heart. This not only makes the standpoint a bit superfluous, it can also seem like a morally objectionable bit of ventriloquism - the theorist speaking for the subaltern even as they claim to be respecting their knowledge and letting them voice their perspectives.

  • Standpoint Theory Is Saying Something Stronger: "as you have described standpoint theory it is consistent with the marginalised not being epistemically advantaged in all respects, indeed being disadvantaged in some, and also for a member of an advantaged group to eventually learn more about the pertinent questions than the marginalised - isn't that just what standpoint epistemologists meant to rule out?" In a word, "no". I think it is telling that I much much more often see this from people who are basically hostile to standpoint theory, and should like to see it discredited. While there are no doubt some heroic souls out there arguing that immigrant black south Londoners have an epistemic advantage in theoretical chemistry, I can confirm (alas) that they do not, and do not see why in general standpoint epistemologists should be burdened with this kind of absurdity. It was already implicit in the stuff about situatedness being an achievement (what I have glossed about incentive to think things through) that the epistemic advantage may be overcome in certain cases, and the fact that this is originally a Marxist theory should give anyone who knows anything about Marx and Engels' family backgrounds reason to doubt that the claim was that one could never achieve epistemic good standing if one is from relatively well off sections of society. If there is anything here, it is just the general issue around what-it-is-like claims on behalf of qualia being private; I don't generally believe such claims, but in any case many of the claims of interest here are not about what-it-is-like claims and there is no need for standpoint epistemologists to have a party line on the epistemology of qualia.

  • Disagreements In Practice: "but what about <this or that> a case where somebody claimed <such and such> an epistemic advantage for <so and so>; that does not seem plausible on empiricist grounds." An empiricist agrees that in general having pertinent experiences and the right kind of incentives will, all else equal, generate epistemic advantage. But in any given case what are the pertinent experiences and who has them, and which incentives are the good ones, and who is actually responsive to those incentives, and is all else really equal? This kind of thing is not a disagreement at the level of high epistemic theory, this depends on concrete details of the case. I think the mental habits of academics and prestige hierarchies of academia encourage people to discuss the most general and theoretically ambitious version of a problem they can: it's not always that helpful. We over-intellectualise disagreements about whether Kofi knows what's up if we insist on producing arguments for or against the proposition that knowledge is socially situated. I think that a lot of the controversy around standpoint epistemology really comes from this kind of thing.

  • 50 Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: "but all these people take there to be a disagreement! Who are you to say it's all just a misunderstanding!?" Elvis was just kinda ok.

  • The Culture War Demands Blood: "people who identify with the label "empiricism" and people who identify with the label "standpoint epistemology" nowadays mostly don't get along, and so just... like, no. No. It can't be that we all actually agree. What would we argue about on twitter?" Fortunately I can reassure people that there will still be plenty to argue about on twitter. But while I'm here I'll note that I think the manifesto of the Vienna circle hints at a Marxist standpoint epistemology-esque argument towards the end of section 4.
So there we have it. Being a well informed empiricist is sufficient for being a standpoint epistemologist. This is actually rather obvious when one thinks about it, and if you are still reading you (yes, you, dear reader) are probably now pretending this was obvious to you all along because you actually had one of the bullet pointed objections but now you're embarrassed about it. Don't @ me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Incivility Is The Master's Tool (But Michelle Wolf Was Fine And People Saying Otherwise Are Lying)

There is a pseudo-controversy around the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner.  To my friends not in America, this is an annual event wherein the press come and make nice with the ruling class they are supposed to be keeping honest. It includes a roast, wherein a designated court jester gets to roast those present and especially the President. Tbh it's generally a pretty gross and sycophantic affair. But, obviously, civility norms are very much relaxed at comedic roasts, and we all know that - that's pretty much the whole point. And if there is any defence to be had at all of the WHCD it's that at least we get the court jester speaking truth to power for just a little bit. But some folk on the right are pretending to be shocked, shocked!, at the ever so rude remarks of this year's court jester, Michelle Wolf. This is pretty transparently just propagandists attempting to marshal public sympathy for anti democratic (soft or hard) restrictions on criticism of Dear Leader, which is probably necessary for anyone in his orbit given how thin skinned a bully the man obviously is. And slow news days combined with a generally feckless and unscrupulous media have made this topic du jour among the chattering classes. (My only defence of adding one more hot take is that I am unimportant and can't make it any worse by posting!) None of what I say in what follows is intended to be inconsistent with this.

But it is inspired by a take I have seen a few people offer in response to the disingenuous behaviour of the propagandists. The idea is that given that Trump et al. obviously don’t care about civility norms, you’re fruitlessly tying your hands behind your back to insist on upholding them when in dialogue with the brutes. Don't bring a knife to a gun fight, don't obey Queensbury rules when they're hitting all and only below the belt, etc etc. One can see the intuition here fairly well; incivility is evidently a powerful weapon of rhetorical warfare (Trump is president!) and we shouldn't surrender it to people who will use the power they attain by it to do very great harm to a very great many people. I think that once upon a time I would have agreed (so, vain as I am, I certainly don't think this is an obviously wrong headed or foolish take or anything of the sort), but I'm now inclined to disagree.  This post is about why I changed my mind.

Audre Lorde - "Been waiting for you to get
the point of that slogan for a while now."
Consider the slogan "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house". The phrase can be traced to its use in this essay by Lorde, and while (as I discuss below) I think she's right, I think that people often use it in a misleading sloganeering fashion. As lots of folk have noted, after all, it is not so rare that the masters' tools really can dismantle the masters' house - there's no sympathetic magic involved in property relations, hammers may be quite indiscriminate in which windows they smash. This needn't be all that metaphorical: the same guns (maybe literally the same guns) that were once held by the slave masters could be used to drive the French from (what became) Haiti. The same goes for more abstract tools - saints and sinners alike can use statistics to compare quantities, the virtuous and the vicious may interview people to see what they think, the woke and the problematic equally well often make artistic depictions of their preferred form of society. So it goes. Not-that-thoughtful invocations of the phrase often aren't much more sophisticated than "The bad people did this so we ought not".

But in Lorde's initial usage she is pushing back against the idea that women must suppress or downplay their differences from one another to form an effective coalition - she thinks that to accept this is to take on a bit of dominant ideology that can't help build the kind of movement she thinks ought be built. I substantially agree with her here, and comparing her actual point with the sloganeering form has been a good object lesson in the misappropriation of black feminist ideas. I think that is because this particular tool (homogenise ourselves to act as a more effective unit!) has two features that are, if not absent, certainly less strongly present in some of the above cases. (i) regular and effective use of this tool will render the tool user unable to function in the kind of society we hope to build (ii) there are viable alternatives.

To illustrate, take the case of statistics - I presume that even when we get intersectional gay space communism (or whatever your favoured ideal) there will still be people counting things and making records of their results, indeed there will be no better way of working out how many horga'hns we'll need on Risa, and I don't especially mind people getting good at that and becoming used to thinking that way. In the case of using arms to drive out the French (then Spanish, then British) colonialists, there might just have been no other way of bringing the awful business of that national death camp to a halt. But, as Lorde argues, people who grow accustomed to having to suppress what makes them unique (and police such expression in others) are ultimately rendering themselves less like the kind of people we should hope will inhabit a better world, and they need not do so in order to build a strong movement. So when (i) and (ii) hold I think we should diagnose something to be a master's tool in Lorde's sense, and avoid its use.

Turn back to civility. I now think here is a case where both (i) and (ii) hold. On (i) - I take it that in the normal course of things, it is preferable that we generally behave pleasantly towards one another and do our best through our words and actions to express respect for one another and accommodate each others' feelings and sentiment. Habituating oneself to being unpleasant, hardening one's heart to fellow feelings and the sentiments of others, this is generally making yourself less like the kind of person we should like to have around. If it's avoidable, there's good prima facie case not to do it.  There are occasions when one really should not worry too much about niceties (it's a good thing indeed that the Haitian revolutionaries were not too concerned on this point!), but where one can... niceties are, well, nice, and that counts for something.

(I note that most times I have seen people disagree with this it has been one of the following three things: (a) people confusing, or cynically pretending not to see the difference between, disingenuous invocations of civility norms to silence dissent from actual concern for other people's well being. It's unavoidable that people will accuse any progressive movement of being incivil, that really does nothing for the question of whether we can or should hold ourselves to high standards of empathetic concern for our fellows. (b) angry young men on the internet, deceived by the kind of propagandists who say "Facts don't care about feelings!", and who think that one must be a wanker to be rational - they ought read this excellent post. And (c) middle class academics who don't actually know any working class people, but have an image of them as ever so rough and tumble, and who declare themselves against civility as a condescending means of expressing solidarity with their fantasy of the ghetto.)

And, (ii), it is avoidable. I can't prove this here (once upon a time this is the point I would have disagreed with) but I can indicate some reasons I disagree. First, I suspect it won't just not work but will be actively counter-productive. I am on record as having nothing against virtue signalling. My reason then was that I think that people respond to social incentives, and so if we make it socially rewarded to be decent then we might reasonably expect more people to be decent. Sure they'll be doing it for the sakes of being showy - but, hey, it'll do. I still think that, and so I worry about the social effects of making it be a sign of one's status as down-with-the-cause that one be a jerk for justice; I don't look at Ben Shapiro's online following and think to myself "There is a social environment I should like to emulate!" But let me now add that it seems that there is a second more positive case to be made for ostentatious virtue, which is that it has both theoretical and historical support.

W.EB. Du Bois - "When you think about it,
being decent means putting me in charge."
Gooding-Williams builds a very persuasive case that calling for knowledgeable people who ostentatiously embody the cultural values of the rural black population to take up leadership roles is the political message underlying Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk ... well, it was that plus a sales pitch that he, himself, embodied those very virtues! And it is the surface reading of Confucianism that ostentatious virtue is its prescription for good and effective political leadership. I recommend you check these out. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi seem to be two cases of something like these theories being successfully applied. (I sometimes wonder if St. Joan of Arc came to occupy the role she did by a similar process.) What these theories have in common is something to the effect that people find clearly displayed virtue suasive, and generally will be willing to engage in difficult common tasks with the decent. Ostentatious concern for the well being of others is something that can actually build up movements.

(Not, of course, that Gandhi or MLK or St. Joan of Arc were perfect political agents who achieved all they wanted to achieve, or that it would have been good had they done so: #NoHeroes. But, let's not kid ourselves, we'd be lucky to achieve anything so problematic as the movement for Indian self-rule!)

So, yeah, I think incivility is the kind of tool that would make us worse if we used it. Maybe we'd be able to win power, but we'd be less able to wield it to bring about the kind of society we should now like, because we'd no longer be the kind of people who'd fit into that very society. In fact, and relatedly, we'd be less likely to even want to use power for the common weal. A hardened heart can end up being quite indiscriminating in its indifference. The examples of leadership through ostentatious decency suggest that another way really is possible. I have not even nearly lived up to these principles myself, as I said I have only recently come to agree with this. And I don't want to ignore how hard it is to be Christlike and turn the other cheek when provoked by those who do not live up to these norms. We should hold ourselves to these standards, but be very forgiving of others who become angry or frustrated in the face of oppression, injustice, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When it comes to trying to change the world through decency, the road is long and the burden is heavy. But I think it's worth it all the same.

Xunzi - "Yo but isn't this what I
already said?"

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Line of Thought in Feminist Philosophy of Science

For my own purposes I am going to summarise a line of argument I think is largely drawn from feminist philosophy of science, maybe especially the work of Helen Longino - see here for an early and relatively complete outline of the argument I summarise below. I'm spurred to do this after some internet discussion made me see that I did not have the same understanding as my interlocutors regarding what the most influential strands of feminist philosophy of science have been. If we're going to disagree about feminist philosophy of science, I'd at least like it to be clear what kind of thing I have in mind! So I hope this fosters dialogue.

(Note that I don't claim any originality for this at all, in fact if I am right in my self-understanding then I am just summarising the results of a well known and developed research programme. I will often mention Longino, but she's certainly not the only person to contribute to this. Some of the relevant stuff is discussed here.)

The line of thought I have in mind can be broken down into four components:

(1) Empiricism - ultimately we evaluate scientific research programmes* in light of how well they help us predict the results of observations, experiments, and interventions. (A version of this - `contextual empiricism' - is, for instance, mentioned in the abstract of the Longino book I link above.) This finds its place in this research programme out of two sources - first, the long standing debate in philosophy of science about empiricism in the sciences. Second, the debates in the 80s and 90s among feminist theorists between `postmodern feminism', `standpoint feminism', and `feminist empiricism'. (For some discussion of the relationship between standpoint feminism and feminist empiricism, as well as other matters relevant to this blog post, see here.) While there have been various nuancings and rapproachments over the years, this is a line of argument typically made by people who went with the third of those options, or at least were very sympathetic to the kind of things that pushed people in that direction.

(2) Under-determination - the kind of evidence we can gather in science, and attendant suite of cognitive values like simplicity, explanatory power, etc, does not fully settle which of various options we should choose when we (or any of us individually) face forced choice situations. If we have to decide which theory to adopt (because, say, we have to take some costly action, and which action we shall judge best to take depends on which theory we endorse) then we shall very often run into situations where these purely cognitive virtues leave us with multiple mutually exclusive options that they jointly cannot distinguish between. Likewise, if we find there are persistent anomalies in the data and we have to decide what to revise, abandon, or adopt in response. This is a very well explored idea in philosophy of science quite widely, and there's a nice SEP article here. For a critical overview of its role in feminist philosophy of science in particular, see here.

(3) Pluralism - Suppose one is trying to do as best one can as an inquiring community at predicting the results of observations, experiments, and interventions. Then in bridging the gap between what the cognitive values + evidence can tell us and what you/we end up endorsing, you should allow for a variety of different `bridge principles' or contextually relevant means of responding to the data to flourish and explore their characteristic ways of inquiring. What's more, one should foster the right kind of virtues among the inquirers to ensure they hear each other's case out and generally remain in respectful dialogue despite this diversity in values and circumstances of inquiry. (This can loop back round into a defence of the empiricism, since it might be claimed that among the virtues needed are proper responsive to empirical evidence as an arbiter of disputes.) Longino defends this in broad detail here and also in a more specific set of cases here, and its also generally supported by a host of arguments in social epistemology, some of which I have even contributed to myself.

(4) Feminism - If one is trying to do as best one can as an inquiring community at predicting the results of observations, experiments, and interventions and accepts that one should thereby foster a variety of different styles of science or value-laden methods of overcoming under-determination, then among them are some characteristically feminist virtues or sets of virtues. This kind of case is often made by pointing to concrete instances of some such values making a positive difference in practice (I personally think that this is a-famous-but-under-appreciated-in-philosophy example of this), but is sometimes made by more abstract arguments that there are classes of problems wherein we should reasonably expect the kind of values associated with feminism to do a better job of things - see here for an instance of the latter.

(*What exactly we are evaluating in terms of its empiricist adequacy is itself a matter of a lot of dispute, don't read too much into my opting for research programmes here - I don't think that's a core commitment of this line of thought.)

So following this through from the beginning we have that - we evaluate proposals for science by basically empiricist lights, and accept that we thereby face an under-determination problem. We argue that by those same empiricist lights we will do better as a community to allow for a variety of responses to our evidential situation, and among those admissible modes of response shall be some driven by characteristically feminist virtues.

To be clear, there are tensions in this view. I'll mention two oft-discussed tensions just to illustrate. One might highlight a tension between (1) and (3); it seems like empiricist virtues are picked out as special, but shouldn't they be just one among many of the value systems scientists or philosophers endorse? Or one might wonder how to stop (3) + (4) collapsing into Feyerabendian anarchism (or Neurathian randomisation)? While this whole line of argument must be founded on some tolerance for the community exhibiting contradictory theories and value schemes, feminist philosophers don't tend to want to end up saying that feminist and misogynistic science each have equally valuable things to contribute! But many of the arguments deployed along the way to (3) and (4) seem like they might have that libertine consequence. Is this a bullet to be bit or is there some in principle difference that explains this tension away?

One might also just directly challenge one of the principles - (1) obviously gets challenged very often by folk with metaphysically realist sympathies, but I have even see people deny (2). This latter can be done by saying that we don't so often actually face forced-choice scenarios, and we should be willing to live in sceptical doubt without committing to options wherein cognitivist values don't settle the matter. I think that some of Haack's critiques of feminist philosophy of science amount to this argument, and my read on young Du Bois is that he would have been committed to something like this response to (2). This just to illustrate that even something as well attested to as under-determination can generate some dissent in philosophy.

And so it goes. But without wanting to settle the matter here -- I think I am pretty sympathetic to each of the points in (1)-(4) so I am not neutral either! -- it seems that this is a very prominent strand of feminist philosophy of science, and when we think of the contributions of feminism to theory of science this deserves some pride of place.